The race for president gets so tight that it is believed that even the leading candidate cannot be too sure of victory at first ballot. So who will carry the day?
By the time Nigerians went in for the first in the series of this year’s general elections last weekend, the excitement in the air was higher than had been witnessed in any of the past elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999. But the hype was less about the quality of what the candidates and the parties have to offer, it was more about the growing desire of the populace to be part of the democratic process. Goaded by increasing political education and the determination to have a say in who gets to elective positions at different tiers of government, Nigerians are showing more than a passing interest in the elections. That is for different reasons. While some are encouraged by the repeated assurance of the Goodluck Jonathan administration that the votes will count this time around, others want to ensure that their candidate of choice is elected into office. So Nigerians dumped the usual apathy to electioneering matters, right from the time of registration of voters, to seize the initiative and determine the next crop of leaders.
This weekend, the electorate will return to the polls, this time to elect the candidate of their choice for the office of president. On the queue of the 18 candidates for the post of president are four front-runners, who have invested considerable energy into the campaigns, using the platform of parties that have some spread. Of the four, Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent President is the leading candidate. Apart from the incumbency factor, Jonathan parades some qualities that endear him to the electorate. For instance, many love him for being coolheaded and not upsetting the rule of law. This they see as a radical departure from the dictatorial tendencies of Olusegun Obasanjo, former president. But, while some people admire this as the quality of a democratic leader, others see it as a sign of timidity. Those in this school of thought express the fear that a leader of this hue could not be trusted to give the country the strong leadership that it requires locally and at the international level. The electorate also acknowledges his avowed commitment to electoral reforms. Some say he is the candidate they can trust now. One of such persons is Caleb Ubale, chairman, Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Gombe State chapter. Ubale believes that Jonathan has shown some seriousness and commitment. “He has shown that he can keep his word. At least, there are things he said he would do, and within a short time he accomplished them. So, one would like to believe that if he has four years he would be able to improve the economy. Take for instance the issue of scarcity of fuel, I don’t know what magic he did, but for a very long time now Nigerians have put the problem behind them,” he argued.
However, there are people who believe that Jonathan has been beaten by the bug of slow action that his predecessor suffered from. His problem is compounded by the lacklustre performance of his party in office for the past 12 years. That may also inform the decision of the President to seriously channel his energy on campaigns across the country and make wide consultations with varied political interest groups across the land. So, will Jonathan win this election? That may not lend itself to easy prediction. The reason is that there are challenges.
Though the President can be said to have an edge over his major challengers, there are fears that the advantage may not immediately translate to victory at the first ballot. He is the sitting president, who holds out as someone who is focused on how to address the problems of the country. Jonathan is also the candidate of the party that has the widest spread of the parties in the country. This election is for him to lose. But if he wins, it will not be by a wide margin. And that will be because of the sins of his Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, his seeming ambivalence on what to do with the legion of corrupt politicians, particularly in his party, the ripple effect of the crisis over the principle of zoning which he is believed to have flouted, the yet unhealed wounds of the primaries of his party at the different levels and the challenge that some of the other candidates pose to him. Muhammadu Buhari, candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, Nuhu Ribadu, candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, and Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, are the three candidates that are giving Jonathan some serious challenge. In the North-west geo-political zone Buhari and Shekarau are the two candidates that will give the President a good fight.
Apart from his home state of Katsina, Buhari is immensely popular in the zone. It was his influence that won the governorship for Shekarau in Kano in 2003. But Shekarau and Buhari, now estranged, appear now to be on a popularity contest particularly in the state. The zone with a voter population of 19.8 million is a major voter harvest that no serious candidate would want to ignore. The general’s rallies are always crowded. For instance, Yinka Odumakin, Buhari’s spokesman said while a motley crowd in Kaduna attended Vice President Namadi Sambo’s rally, that of Buhari had thousands of people in attendance. But Ebenezer Babatope, chairman of the inter-party relations committee of the Jonathan/Sambo Campaign, said that the number of people that attend rallies is not a sure way of determining the electoral strength of candidates. He said, “Let me tell you something I know about political rallies. We are not going to underestimate Buhari or anybody, but I know that rallies are not the exact representation of the voting strength of candidates”. Babatope may be right. Some people are said to be afraid to openly canvass for vote for the President because of the widespread sentiment for zoning and what has been described as the violent nature of some of those who are campaigning for Buhari. This is analysed by someone who also understands the dynamics of politics and the political culture of the North. Hassan Mohammed, assistant lecturer, Political Science department, Gombe State University, told the magazine that people are afraid of openly identifying with the PDP presidential candidate. “Staunch PDP stalwarts in the state are even afraid of openly campaigning for the President here, for fear of being attacked by the followers of Buhari. Almost everyone you talk to in town would tell you that they are going to vote for the PDP candidate at the governorship election, but are going to line up behind Buhari at the presidential level. But deep down they are still committed to voting for the incumbent President,” he explained. A recent incident in Gombe confirmed what the don said. Governor Danjuma Goje publicly chided his fellow PDP members at a rally in the state, for not having the courage to stand by and defend the candidature of Jonathan publicly. Mustapha Salihu, manager, HUD Microfinance Bank, Bauchi, argues that Buhari’s overall chances would have been better if Nuhu Ribadu and Shekarau had agreed to step down for him. Regardless of the above handicap, he believes Buhari would garner more votes than all the other candidates put together. “Buhari’s credibility has come to stay in the minds of the people in the North, wherever he goes that support would follow him. They are not interested in the party; if he goes to APGA today, their loyalty would shift to APGA,” he enthused. “So, I am convinced that the Bauchi electorate would vote for Buhari, rather than Jonathan in the presidential election,” Salihu noted, adding that the average northerner feels cheated by the fact that the PDP abandoned its zoning arrangement and gave its presidential ticket to someone from outside the North.
But Mohammed said even if they vote en masse for Buhari, Jonathan would still get a substantial percentage from predominantly PDP state.
The challenge that Jonathan will face in North-west, apart from the popularity of the two candidates from the area is the anger of people of the North over the circumvention of the zoning formula. That sentiment also spreads to the North-east. There, Buhari may have an upper hand. This is partly because Shekarau does not seem to enjoy the support of his fellow ANPP governors. Even then, that does not mean that Buhari will be the sole benefactor. Ribadu who comes from the zone may share some of the votes with the former head of state. However, the PDP is also expected to get some votes, and in fact may get the required 25 per cent of the votes in some of these states. For instance, a lot of factors will work for its candidate in Borno State. Governor Ali Modu Sherif, though a chieftain of the ANPP, is believed to be a friend of the ruling party and may therefore work for Jonathan, particularly when he is not known to have pulled much of his weight behind his party’s candidate. In that state there is also the minority question that the PDP candidate is said to be using to advantage. All these are expected to complement the efforts of Sanusi Daggash, minister of works and Kashim Imam, governorship candidate of the PDP in the state in 2007. The two politicians are said to be grassroots politicians who are capable of mobilising support for the President. In other parts of the zone, governors elected on the platform of PDP are said to be working really hard, like their counterparts in other areas, to ensure that the party wins the forthcoming election. It is believed that the governors are also doing this partly for selfish reasons. Some of them are looking ahead into 2015, when they hope to run for president. That is premised on the promise by Jonathan that he will not seek a second term in office. The ambitious governors are also assuming that by that time the trio of Atiku Abubakar, former vice president, Ibrahim Babangida, former head of state and Ahmed Gusau, former National Security Adviser would no longer be strong contenders for the office or would have been retired by age.
Even then the governors are working against the torrent of anger by people of the North that Jonathan is running in contravention of the zoning principle that says that the candidate for president should come from the North. They are angry that Jonathan’s handlers are posturing as if the zoning principle was dead. This sentiment featured in a meeting the President had with the group led by Adamu Ciroma, a chieftain of the party who championed the screening of three presidential aspirants from the North, from which group they chose Abubakar as the consensus candidate, prior to the party’s primary. Jonathan had called a meeting, which included his opponents, on the eve of a recent meeting of the party’s Board of Trustees, BoT. He reportedly pleaded with them to rally round his candidature in the interest of the party. Jonathan was said to have made them realise that if they refuse to close ranks to promote the interest of the party, some other party might win the election by default. The President met a brick wall. And that surprised him greatly. Sources say some of his strategists were working on the supposition that northern elite were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the rising profile of Buhari, who has made it abundantly clear that his government will bring every corrupt Nigerian to justice. Now, the ordinary people in the North are sold on Buhari, the man they admire for his credibility and who has become a ready weapon to avenge what they see as robbery of the right to produce the president of the country for the next four years. What the North expected was that Jonathan would be satisfied with completing the remaining part of the term he shared with the late Umaru Yar’Adua, and then leave the stage for another candidate from the North. The calculations of his handlers that the northern elite would grab the opportunity he provided for them to discuss fell flat. The Ciroma group would not budge until Jonathan had given them a concrete commitment that he would not aspire to run for second term in 2015. They would not be persuaded to take verbal assurance, coming from the background of the fact that the man who though benefitted from the zoning principle moved against it to get the ticket of the party. They told him that the only way they would be able to convince their supporters to reconsider voting against the President is if he would sign an undertaking that he would not seek a second term in office. The meeting stalemated. Jonathan, though desperately in need of their support, declined to give that type of commitment. The same man also refused to trade some of his political appointees in the negotiation, because he is said to be looking forward to using some of these people to drive his programmes if he wins the ballot. It is said that the President assumed that if he were to concede to negotiate those people away, it would mean that those he had identified as being strong enough to be relied upon to deliver results would have left the cabinet, and he would have to start scouting for a new crop of people. So he pleaded with them, flaunting some of the things his administration had done within a short time, to see why they all have to look beyond the pains of personal losses and join hands with him to redeem the party and work to improve power and boost the economy. It was a game of chess. While he harped on the interest of the party and his surprise that they would doubt him on anything, they too made him realise how dangerous it would be for him to take for granted the numerical strength of the North at the polls. That is the truth. The North-west has a voter population of 19.8 million, with Kano alone parading over five million.
The point they tried to drive home to the President is that the votes of the South would not be enough for him to retain his seat. For while Buhari’s home state of Katsina has over three million voters, the President’s home state of Bayelsa has only 591,870 registered voters. That is not lost on Jonathan who has been canvassing for votes from all the zones. The President appears to be on good standing in the South-south and the South-east geo-political zones of the country. The first being his source and the second regarded as allies. The PDP governors in the two zones are working round-the-clock to ensure that the man wins the election. The North-central too holds promise, while he may get some from the South-west. In the latter zone, Jonathan will have Ribadu and Buhari to contend with. Ribadu, because his party has a strong hold in the zone and Buhari because Tunde Bakare, pastor of the Latter Rain Assembly comes from the zone. While some people argue that Bakare may not add any electoral value to the ticket of the CPC, it is said that his choice created ripples in one of the political parties that a chieftain of the party made moves to convince Buhari to replace the pastor with another candidate. But if the only effect that Buhari wanted his partner’s presence on the ticket to have is that people will have a rethink on the label of an Islamic fundamentalist then he has succeeded. So if the retired general takes the bulk of the votes in the North-west and the North-east, he would only need to shop for a little more from the South and the North-central as well as get 25 per cent of the votes cast in 24 of the 36 states of the country.
But Buhari too will face some challenges in those places. First, he is being ambushed by Shekarau in Kano State. Though the general helped him to power in 2003, he is said to have learnt the rope in the past four years, enough to surprise the man. So between him, Ribadu and Jonathan, there will be a big struggle for the over 41 million votes in the three zones in the North. Anyone who gets an upper hand there may simply override the over 17 million votes of the South-south and South-east together. That is where the over 14 million votes of the South-west come into play. Who will the zone vote for? Will they vote according to parties or personality? The magazine learnt that many people would vote according to personal conviction. What that means is that the people of a state may vote for the governorship candidate of one party and the presidential candidate of another. Jonathan was not oblivious of the fact that he needed the votes of people of the North.
Initially it was assumed that Sambo, vice president would be useful in efforts to appease northerners over the issue of zoning and make them embrace the candidature of his boss. That assumption, according to a Presidency source, ended up a misplaced one. Rather than leave negotiations in the North for his deputy, the President had to undertake the assignment himself. A source said that he appeared to have made some inroad to the North, but he expressed fears that the initiative may have started a little too late. In the intervening period, Buhari and Shekarau had gained more grounds. One of such initiatives is the one he took in the meeting with Ciroma and the presidential aspirants. But it is yet to yield dividend, not because he came late, but because of the suspicion that they would not concede to Jonathan except they get a concrete commitment that he was not going to seek re-election in 2015.
When that meeting deadlocked, Obasanjo was said to have also tried to trouble-shoot. Shortly after the BoT meeting, he met with the trio of Babangida, Gusau and Abubakar. When they could not convince the former president that the idea of a concrete commitment was desirous before the election, they told him of yet another matter they had raised with Jonathan. The politicians had confronted the President with the allegation that he planned to sponsor a bill to the National Assembly for the amendment of the constitution for a single term of seven years for executives, instead of the present two terms of four years each. The President was said to have told them that should that happen, he would not benefit from it. Obasanjo reportedly said that he was not aware of the plan. Though he said that if that were to happen, the sponsors of the bill would still have to consult widely. He would need to table it before the party and the council of states. Even if it passes through the stages, the bill will be at the mercy of legislators. As part of efforts to convince the group that Jonathan can be trusted Obasanjo told the audience at the presidential rally in Abuja last month that zoning is ‘alive and kicking’. He also said that the party would make the President respect his promise to spend only one term in office. That promise, perhaps because it did not come from the President himself or did not come as requested by the northern leaders, may not have assuaged the angry northern political system.
So the belief is that the loss of Jonathan will be the gain of Buhari. What that means is that the contest is a straight one between the President and the CPC candidate. Shekarau, though will benefit from the endorsement by Patrick Utomi, candidate of the Social Democratic Mega Party, SDMP, who stepped down last week, the Kano State governor is said to be hampered by funds and limited reach of his party. Besides, his colleagues in the ANPP are not all for him. But he has an experienced politician as running mate. John Odigie-Oyegun was Third Republic governor of Edo State and a respected politician. But Oyegun’s state is governed by an ACN governor and the state is in the South-south where people appear more disposed to Jonathan. That is if his order for the security forces to shoot protesters at sight in Akwa Ibom State will not boomerang. Shekarau shares the problem of funds with Buhari and Ribadu, all of who do not have the kind of financial war chest that PDP’s Jonathan has in abundance. They all, however, speak to the needs of the people when they try to address issues. At the debate Shekarau demonstrated a clearer understanding of the issues affecting economy and the growth of the polity. He also tried to impress his audience with his exploits in Kano in the past eight years. Though when he appeared for the second debate he too also talked about some of the things that his government had done, Jonathan, not one to move audience did not do as much as Shekarau to market his candidature. Ribadu won limelight for his courage and commitment in the war against corruption. He has Afolabi Adeola as running mate, a man who brings to table the experience of a successful exploit in the private sector. So at the best Ribadu and Shekarau will split votes with Buhari in the North, while PDP governors, depending on their popularity, will also get votes for their candidate. From reports, Ribadu appears to have the upper hand in his home state of Adamawa and Taraba, in that zone. There is a snag though Taraba has 1.3 million votes, one of the least in the area. He may also make an inroad to Benue. The South-west will also be another battle ground between the President, Buhari and Ribadu. The latter, for his platform and Buhari, for his character and Bakare. The extent they can go will also depend on whether or not Jonathan has been forgiven his gaffe about ‘rascals’ ruling the South-west. Another thing that may work against Jonathan in the zone is an extant action, of which he had no contribution. It is the sin of his party in the zone in the last eight years and the alleged political subterfuge played by Obasanjo, his godfather, against political leaders in the area in 2003, that led to the appropriation of the people’s mandate in five of the six states in the South-west. He faces probable protest votes in the zone for this reason and the eventual actions of the beneficiaries of that deception to entrench themselves in the system.
Another area where he may suffer protest votes are states where the primaries were muddled to favour people who have the backing of some party leaders. These have led to decamping by members who believe that the party was doing the opposite of what the President, who is also the leader of the party, is preaching. But he is not the only candidate who will be at the receiving end of this kind of sharp practices. Almost all the major parties are guilty of imposition of candidates. In fact, PDP is even better off, for attempting to conduct elections for most of the tickets. The ACN have been variously lampooned for not allowing intra-party democracy. The reactions of members in Edo and Lagos almost tore the party down the line. The same thing happened in CPC, where the matter degenerated to violence in some of the states in the North. Now these are the strongholds of the candidate of the party. Should the wound refuse to heal, that may affect the chances of Buhari. It is yet unclear what efforts are being made in the CPC to assuage the aggrieved members. In the PDP, the committee headed by Governor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State appears to be making some difference, although quietly.
However, Buhari’s political odyssey is hardly ever dictated by harmony in the party that gives him platform. Rather, his image looms large, which is why he could become a front-runner even running on the platform of a party that is relatively new.
The retired general is believed to be respected for his anti-corruption credentials and his honesty. But what opponents harp on against him is that he cannot be purged of military tendency and aversion to the rule of law. If Jonathan’s opponents are to be believed they say that governors in the North who are assuring him that he would get the votes of people of the area are deceiving him, knowing full well that they cannot totally influence the people on this matter. But they appear to have lost sight of the fact that the governors know what they stand to lose if Buhari wins the election and the fact that the hope for any of them to work towards running for president in 2015 would have been dashed.
However, if the governors were not able to swing the votes for the President, Buhari would have difficulty getting the votes of the South-east and the South-south, where the President appears confident. The Igbo people are complaining that the CPC has sidelined the Igbo in its fold. For this reason, Mike Ahamba, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Buhari’s lawyer, who also used to be a top shot in the ANPP left the CPC candidate recently. A similar allegation was levelled against the ACN. That gives Jonathan reason to cheer. In a way this lends credence to the controversial poll published by ThisDay newspaper giving him 60 per cent of the votes.
While political parties publicly condemn the poll, they all went back to the drawing board to oil their campaign machinery once again. The neighbour-to-neighbour strategy of the PDP appeared to have given it mileage, even as the President also launched out. The campaign of the PDP may have got a further shot in the arm with the commitment of Patience Jonathan, wife of the President. She is the only candidate’s wife who has invested time and energy into the campaign of her husband. The debate organised by News Network 24, NN24, also helped Shekarau. He came across as the most articulate of the candidates at the debate, which was not attended by Jonathan. The President said when he appeared alone at another debate boycotted by the other three major candidates that his view was that the debates be harmonised, so that candidates would not have to duplicate efforts. But Buhari, Shekarau and Ribadu allegedly boycotted because they felt slighted by the refusal of Jonathan to participate in the first one. The organisers of last week’s debate, however, claimed that they were not informed formally that the three candidates would not attend the debate.
The likely result of all these is that the presidential election may not be concluded on the first ballot. That is said to be the prayers of the opposition. This is because it may be difficult for any of the candidates to get the constitutional requirement of 25 per cent of the votes in 24 of the 36 states of the federation. If that happens, the opposition can then come together and pull their weight behind the challenger. And since a simple majority will determine the winner, they could actually ignore some votes and concentrate on areas where there are large votes. Who will that challenger be at the second ballot? The finger points at Buhari. So those who say the contest is between Jonathan and Buhari may then celebrate. However, with negotiations going on at the different levels, it is too early to say categorically that Jonathan will not get a major concession that will deliver the polls to him, nor can it be said that he could make a further advancement capable of giving him a wider gap for a victory song. The celebration may also be in his camp. Whichever way, if promises are to be believed, Nigerians should expect a change for the better. At least that was what was promised. And if the election is credible as promised by the authorities, then whoever wins must be adjudged by Nigerians as being the best for the season.
Additional reports by ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO and RAYMOND MORDI